Thursday, September 4, 2008

Sky cools ... Sun await

Well, the Chicago Sky won't enter tomorrow's game at Mohegan Sun Arena on quite a roll. They had their three-game win streak snapped with a 70-62 loss to Seattle, which clinched a playoff berth with the win.

It doesn't change much though entering their game with the Sun. The Sky have played their best basketball out of the break, and the reasons are many. Sylvia Fowles had a streak of three straight double-doubles before Thursday's performance (12 points, four rebounds), a by-product of her play at the Olympics and the tutelage she got there from Lisa Leslie and Tina Thompson. Oh, and she's pretty talented, too.

"It’s confidence," said Sun coach Mike Thibault, who was an assistant on the gold medal-winning U.S. team. "She knows the league more. She has more understanding that she can be assertive in their offense. I think before at the start of the year she was trying to fit in because they had some veterans there. Now she understands that she can be a big part of why they are successful. She has been on a rebounding tear since they came back."

Asked if teams in the Olympics did anything specific to slow her, Thibault laughed. "No, no." So what will the Sun do? Thibault wouldn't say exactly, but it starts with keeping her off the boards, similar to what Seattle did Thursday.

"That’s the first focus," Thibault said. "Get back in transition against her because she runs the floor and don’t give her second shots. They’re a very talented team. They’re playing now the way people thought they might play earlier in the year. There were people who picked them to make the playoffs. Some of them, over us." (An editorial note: Basically everyone in the national media picked them over the Sun, outside a rogue ESPN analyst.)

"I’m not surprised by" how Chicago is playing, said Thibault, who has said for weeks he expected them to be that much better a team with Fowles back. That's not too difficult a prediction, but Thibault called Chicago perhaps the most improved team in the league with Fowles in the fold. The Sky are simply showing it now.

"I don’t know if it’s too late or not for them," Thibault said. "We’ll see how they play the next couple days. But when they have her, (Candace) Dupree and (Chasity) Melvin, that’s a pretty good frontline."

With their loss Thursday, Chicago (11-18) now sits three games back of Indiana for the fourth and final playoff spot. Catching the Fever isn't mathematically impossible, but it's improbable at this point outside of something similar to a Mets-Phillies debacle (or miracle?) from last year's NL East race.

As for the Sun, I mentioned in the blog post below that Lindsay Whalen is likely to play ("80 percent" Thibault calls it). If she wakes up tomorrow and her right ankle feels overly sore from practicing Thursday, things could change, but it looks like Whalen's absence was a one-game thing, for now. If the Sun clinch homecourt advantage with a few games to play and her ankle is still bothering her, she could sit or play limited minutes then. Thibault is big on creating habits and a good rhythm entering the playoffs so holding out starters wouldn't quite fit into that mold. All this remains to be seen, but approaching tomorrow's game doesn't change, Thibault said.

"Do the things that we’ve been doing right before the break and right after it," Thibault said. "Play good defense, help each other, make them work. They (the Storm) are coming in on a back-to-back. Try to take their legs from them. And run it back the other way and try to share the ball. I’m not changing anything that we talked about before."

The Sun have won six straight, the longest active streak in the league, and can continue to build upon their two-game cushion atop the Eastern Conference (given Detroit doesn't continue to win and they do).

"I think the No. 1 thing for us is we have team chemistry," Tamika Raymond said. "We have multiple players at multiple positions. We have people who play a lot of minutes one night and then some nights, there are people who get injured and people have to step up. I think right now, that’s what’s keeping this team together the most. We don’t have the extra stuff. We don’t have the egos. Secondly, I think it’s our defensive pressure. We’re making teams catching the ball out further."

I wrote about this in the past, but the break may have helped the Sun rookies the most, allowing them to work on individual skills and take a step back from the game-day pressure. That, in turn, has helped the Sun outside of their contributions in the last three games.

"The first part of the season, starting two young guards, there are certain things he (Thibault) had to let slide a little bit more and you don’t have time to fix things because there are so many games," Raymond said. "But we had our break, our assistants did a great job of getting us to another level. Now, he can nit-pick little things. He doesn’t have to yell at Amber (Holt) to take shots or Amber to play defense or KG (Kerri Gardin) to play defense or Barb (Turner) to guard. There’s no more of that. Now he’s coaching them like their pros, like they’ve been in the league. Now he can focus on little things, things that help you win a championship."

For more, here's the Scout Box for tomorrow's game with extra notes and probable starters:

7 p.m., today
Mohegan Sun Arena, Mohegan

Records: Connecticut 19-10; Chicago 11-18.
Last game: Connecticut beat Seattle, 80-76, on Sunday; Chicago lost to Seattle, 70-62, on Thursday.
Next game: Connecticut hosts San Antonio; Chicago plays at New York. Both games are Sunday
Series: The Sun lead the all-time series, 8-2. They’ve won two of the teams’ three match-ups this season, including a 74-67 decision on July 20 at Mohegan Sun Arena.
Injuries: Connecticut—Lindsay Whalen (probable, sprained right ankle). Chicago—none reported.
Scouting report: The Sun rank second in the league in rebounds per game (36.9), but even the addition of the 6-foot-2 Svetlana Abrosimova doesn’t change that they’re still one of the league’s smallest teams. Frontlines like Chicago’s Sylvia Fowles (6-foot-6), Chasity Melvin (6-foot-3) and Candace Dupree (6-foot-2) also have the potential to exploit that. “You take away (the 6-foot-4 Sandrine) Gruda, our average height on the team, we’re not looking too good,” Tamika Raymond said. “But I think we have that toughness, and Coach (Mike Thibault) makes us like that. And I think he starts it in practice. ‘Think of every possession as a playoff possession … and if that was your last playoff possession, how did you just perform?’ And if you’re a team and you really want it, then you turn it on.” … Thibault said the Sun’s lack of forced turnovers (a league-low 14.5 per game) is “the most baffling thing about this team.” It’s one reason the team has started to extend its man-to-man defense to full court. “But maybe it goes hand in hand with committing the (fewest) fouls in the league, too,” Thibault said. … Though the Sun came out similarly hot following the Olympic break in 2004 (4-2 in their final six games), Thibault said he doesn’t see too many similarities between this year’s team and that one. “We were so bad before the break in 2004, we were terrible,” he said. “This time we went into the break kind of feeling good about ourselves. Our confidence level was much different. When we came out of the break last time, we weren’t necessarily confident. We were just hoping that what we’ve done would pay off. And then as we went, people were saying, ‘Yeah, we’re OK.’” The Sun reached the WNBA finals that year.

F Kerri Gardin 3.7
15 F Asjha Jones 17.0
00 C Tamika Whitmore 12.1
13 G Lindsay Whalen 14.4
1 G Amber Holt 6.8

Connecticut reserves
22 Barbara Turner 7.9
7 Sandrine Gruda 6.6
10 Jamie Carey 4.4

21 F Brooke Wyckoff 2.3
4 F Candice Dupree 16.9
34 C Sylvia Fowles 9.7
3 G Dominique Canty 8.2
11 G Jia Perkins 17.0

Chicago reserves
44 Chasity Melvin 8.5
22 Armintie Price 7.0
9 Cathy Joens 4.0

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